A history of writing in human civilization

What is this civilized thing called writing? Modern linguists define writing as a system of human communication by means of conventional, agreed-upon signals that represent language. The signs must be capable of being sent and received, mutually understood, and they must correspond to spoken words. Each written means began with simple pictures and plain strokes or dots - adequate for recording objects and numbers. Of all the creation of man, writing is our most exquisite intellectual accomplishment.

Contrary to a popular belief, writing was invented not once but possibly as many as six separate times, in very distant places. Man approached writing by lengthy stages: the development of speech; the invention of pictures; the need to reinforce memory by storing information; the realization that pictures could be used for purpose; and finally, the difficult trial and error process of adapting pictures so that they represented the sounds of speech. The Origin of writing is seen through the development of civilizations over certain periods of historical times and places. Though writing developed not much more than 5000 years ago-----only yesterday in the long calendar of man’s emergence------its roots, like those of so many other inventions, lie further back in the past. (Clairborne, p.11)

Writing was invented in order to record business activities. Certain people needed to be able to keep track and records of various things. It was impossible to rely on a man’s memory for every detail, a new method was needed to keep reliable records. As cities grew more complex, so did writing. Over 500 years of evolution the outward appearance and internal structure of writing changed. The social conditions that gave rise to writing are described as a phenomenon called the urban revolution. (Clairborne, p 20).

Like speech, of which it is an extension, writing requires the capacity to make mental leaps. All languages include a few imitative words that literally sound like the ideas they represent—such as cough, buzz. But the number of things or actions that can be identified by sound is very limited, so that the vocabularies of all languages, are overwhelmingly composed of arbitrary sounds whose relationships to their meanings are purely a matter of convention.

When did human speech embodying such arbitrary abstractions begin to develop? 100,000 years ago our ancestors and even homo erectus a million years ago, were capable of speech. 40,000 years ago homo sapiens must have been capable of performing the mental skills that are involved in speech and even writing.

Writing was invented in many places, often independently. From roughly 3000 B.C. to 1000 B.C., writing arose in more than half a dozen societies. Some inventors knew though that writing existed in other societies.

The Sumerians, thought to be the first inventors of writing, were in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth Millennium B.C. Their earliest script appears around 3100 B.C., as the Urban revolution came into place. Soon afterwards the Egyptians reinvented writing nearly a thousand miles away. It is likely enough that the Egyptians got the idea from the Sumerians, but the idea is all they could have taken. For one thing, the Egyptian script is very different in its symbols. Also, the pictures used in both systems vary. The means of recording both systems were also very different. The Sumerians inscribed their pictures on soft clay tablets; the Egyptians carved theirs on stone monuments, painted or drew on pottery and rolls of papyrus.

Sometime around 2500 B.C., writing was invented for the third time by the Elamites, whose territory lay in area known today as Iran, 200 miles east of Sumer. How the script came to be and what course of development it followed remain unknown by researchers. The inhabitants of Elam later discarded their own script and took over cuneiform, adapting the Sumerian signs.

In the same period, writing was invented yet again by the civilization in the Indus valley, in present day Pakistan. As with Egypt and Elam, there is evidence of contact with Sumer, but again the script and implements of writing are quite different. Also the inscriptions were carved on stone and monuments. The people of the Indus Valley did not use papyrus or clay tablets but perhaps they wrote on a perishable item such as wood or leather.

Soon after 2000 B.C. writing was invented for the fifth time, in the maritime kingdom of Crete. The Cretans almost certainly got the notion of writing from foreign parts, but the actual script is highly original. The Cretans were by the 17th century B.C. using two scripts: Linear A and Linear B. Crete has one of the strangest artifacts in the history of writing: the Phaistos disk. The symbols on the disk are unlike the linear scripts. The most striking feature is that the symbols were impressed with stamps instead of a stylus, the tool usually associated with writing on clay.

By 1500 B.C. another invention of writing had appeared in Asia Minor: Hittite hieroglyphs. Hittite hieroglyphs, which do not resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs, were written in alternating directions. The script numbered as many as 419 symbols, mostly pictographic. The Hittites used hieroglyphs when they carved inscriptions on stone monuments and rocks, but for everyday purposes they wrote in cuneiform, borrowed by Mesopotamia.

At about the same time, writing was invented again, far to the east, in the Valley of Yellow River in China. Early Chinese symbols were pictorial and very indigenous, as were the writing materials: bamboo and silk.

From all these beginnings many new scripts were to arise and further refinements were to be made. The revolutionary advance to alphabetic writing was the main growth in writing.

Cuneiform is an ancient form of writing named for the shape of its word signs. It is the earliest known form of writing or picture script. Writing was first written with scratching signs on damp clay with a pointed stick or reed. The clay was written on while moist and left to dry in the sun afterwards. People found it was easier and quicker to make a stylized representation of an object by making a few marks on clay than drawing pictures. So instead they drew straight lines or curves, thus the beginning of cuneiform. Cuneiform was written mostly on clay tablets but also on envelopes of clay used for transport, seals and monuments.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs is the earliest script, and the longest duration. The first hieroglyphs are in the form of short label texts on stone and pottery objects. The script was originally employed for different kinds of texts, but as other writings developed, hieroglyphic was increasingly confined to religious and monumental contexts. The signs of the hieroglyphic script are largely pictorial in character. A few are indeterminate in form, but most characters are recognizable pictures which may exhibit fine detail and coloring, although not always realistic. Many people think that it is a kind of primitive “picture-writing” because of its artistic beauty. But it is a full writing system, capable of communicating the same kind of information as our own alphabet although it does so in a different manner. The script is a ‘mixed’ system: its components do not all perform the same function; some of the signs convey meaning, others convey sound.

An English student of archaeology named Arthur Evans discovered a form of writing and named it Linear B. This writing was used in the Bronze Age and was also written on clay tablets. The Linear B script consists of three elements: syllabic signs, ideograms and numerals. The syllabic signs are used to spell out the phonetic shape of the word. The ideograms were not used as a means of writing a word, but as a symbol to indicate what the numerals were counting, therefore usually found before numerals. Linear B consists of 87 signs which can be divided into three classes: the basic syllabary, consisting of signs for the five vowels, twelve consonants, and the combination of them; the optional signs, which may be employed to give a more accurate spelling; and the unidentified signs. Linear A is merely the ancestor of Linear B.

Abstract phrases such as “I can” called for something flexible enough to record speech itself. The Answer? The Alphabet.

What exactly is the alphabet? Seven different alphabetic scripts are employed today, but all of them rest on a single principle: an alphabet consists of a fixed set of written signs, each standing, in theory at least, for a single spoken sound; all the signs can be used interchangeably to form the various words of a given language. This remarkable system arose as the result of a great burst of cultural standing that took place for 1000 years around 2500 B.C.

Beginning about 1000 B.C., Phoenician traders carried their alphabet from the Mediterranean ports, spreading the seed for all the alphabets in the world. (Hooker, p. 54) Three ancient scripts incorporate the traits-the form and number of the characters, the sounds they express, the sequences they follow, even the names of the characters themselves-that mark them as possible predecessors of the Phoenician alphabet, which emerged around 1100 B.C. By 1000 B.C. their alphabet had come into full flower. This fertile Phoenician alphabet was a script of 22 characters, and it was a modern alphabet in all respects but one: it had no vowels. Where the Phoenicians went, so did their alphabet. New scribes who took it up added their own refinements making from that single script a sturdy communication tool that would survive and lend itself to any language spoken by man. Once launched, the alphabet spread rapidly, with its economy of symbols, its flexibility and its direct relationship to the sounds of spoken words, made writing far easier to learn and manage.

Even today the story of writing and its beginnings are far from completely told, researchers continue to find new evidence in the form of writing of our ancestors. But we know the origin of writing developed through ancient civilizations over periods of time where the need for writing evolved.

c.100,000-40,000 B.C.
Modern man evolves physiological capability of speech.

c.30,000 B.C.
Primitive cave paintings appear in Europe.

c.20,000-6500 B.C.
Notches on animal bones, a forerunner of writing in Africa and elsewhere, indicate beginnings of record keeping.

c.3500-3000 B.C.
Earliest known pictograph writing appears in Sumer.

c.3000 B.C.
Egyptians use hieroglyphic writing.

c.2800-2600 B.C.
The Sumerian writing system becomes cuneiform.

c.2500 B.C.
Cuneiform begins to spread throughout the Near East.

c.2300 B.C.
Indus Valley people use pictorial symbols .

c.2000 B.C.
Sequential pictographic inscriptions, considered a true system of writing, appear on clay tablets in Crete.

c.1500 B.C.
Hittites invent their own form of hieroglyphic writing; Chinese develop ideographs.

c.1400 B.C.
People in the trading port of Ugarit devise an alphabet.

c.1100-900 B.C.
Phoenicians spread precursor of modern alphabet across the sea to Greece.

c.800 B.C.
Greeks develop concept of modern alphabet, with vowels.


Claiborne, Robert. Reading the past . University of California press/British Museum, 1990